Edward Stourton reveals what war means for ordinary people
- Credit: Andrew Crowley
BBC journalist talks to Bridget Galton about his new book and the perils of reporting on armed conflict
Ed Stourton has dodged bullets, grilled slippery politicians and risen regularly at the crack of dawn to bring us the news.
He’s the Today programme presenter allegedly dropped for being too posh or too religious – supplanted by the chummier, smoother Justin Webb.
But the veteran broadcaster – public school and Oxbridge-educated, distantly related to a baron – hasn’t let that check the stride of his galloping career.
His rich, plummy tones can still be heard on The World at One and The World This Weekend, but he’s also found time to write a book on the perilous journeys of those fleeing Nazi-occupied France over the Pyrenees.
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The 55-year-old, not noted for a lithe figure, undertook the gruelling four-day, 40-mile memorial trail, or ‘chemin de la liberte’, in the name of research.
“It started as a radio programme about the crossing. People kept getting in touch and I realised there was an untapped well of wonderful stories.
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“The crossing was very tough but I’m pleased I did it. The real challenge came on day three. I was scrambling over scree and there was that awful moment when you look out and realise you have to go down there and back up again.”
Cruel Crossing tells of the thousands who crossed the border to freedom in Spain – Jews, RAF pilots, Special Operations Executive agents and anti-Nazi activists.
Aided by brave locals known as ‘passeurs’ they crossed in all weathers, often at night, with little food or shelter.
The French are famously cagey about their ambiguous wartime record of resistance and collaboration, but Stourton says there’s been a big change since he was the BBC’s Paris correspondent in the Eighties.
“When I was based there Mitterrand was still in power and was the last of that generation with an ambiguous past during that period. There was great nervousness about addressing some of the things that were done, but in 1995 Jacques Chirac said, ‘We have to confront what we did’.
“That made a big difference to the French attitude. As that generation comes to the end, people want to talk more. Distance has brought an interest, an ability to talk about it and a greater willingness to be clear-eyed.”
That may be partly why the story of the crossings is little known and many of Stourton’s subjects never spoke of their exploits.
Brave souls who helped the refugees included a 19-year-old shepherd’s daughter and a nurse, Dédée de Jongh, who with her father Frédéric set up the ‘Comet Line’ for downed airmen and personally helped around half of the 800 who crossed into Spain.
“Everybody has extraordinary stories to tell after a war of that kind that involved populations as well as soldiers and there must have been a feeling that if they had done something pretty extraordinary, so had everyone else,” says Stourton.
“There are heartwarming tales of selfless courage showed by the helpers who worked on the escape lines for Allied servicemen and pilots. Jews tended not to have organisations they could turn to and had to find a guide hoping they could trust them. A lot of helpers were women; they couldn’t join the army, so it was the best way for them to resist.”
Such bravery came at a price as Stourton recounts tales of betrayal, torture and death. De Jongh and her father were betrayed, he was killed and she was sent to two concentration camps but miraculously survived, and was later decorated and honoured.
He also tracks down some of those who were saved. Joan Salter, who was born Fanny Zimetbaum to Polish Jewish parents, was carried over as a two-year-old, cared for by quakers and the Red Cross before being evacuated to America.
Ninette Dreyfus, a pampered young Parisian, didn’t know she was Jewish until the war broke out. When the Germans approached the capital, she and her family left for Marseille in a chauffeur-driven Chrysler. They were eventually forced to undertake the perilous journey across the Pyrenees in the rain to avoid sniffer dogs.
One man on Stourton’s crossing was there for the 10th time in honour of his father who had made the journey in wartime.
“He didn’t know what his father had done until he found his amazing diary about the 16 months he spent in France as a soldier after Dunkirk. He made an astonishing escape across the Pyrenees.”
Stourton, who has a holiday home in the Pyrenees, says that, for all the extreme danger, it was also thrilling trying to outwit the Nazis. “For some of those who did the journey, it was exciting, the greatest adventure of their lives.”
He enjoys telling the history of “ordinary people who did extraordinary things”.
“The days when we wanted to hear about generals and politicians have gone. There’s more interest in oral history and domestic stories, what it meant for ordinary people, begging the question, what would I have done?”
Stourton started as an ITN graduate trainee and was a founder member of Channel 4 News before joining the BBC, where he has presented the BBC News at One and, for a decade from 1999, the Today programme. He has experienced war at first hand in both Iraq and Bosnia.
“There’s no doubt that if you are a young man, war is exciting. War reporting is much easier to do when you are young and brave and think no one’s going to hit you. I am more anxious about it than I used to be,” he confesses.
In Bosnia, while travelling behind a Canadian personnel carrier along a dangerous road, his car came under sniper fire.
“They got a shot out down the middle of the car. It went out of the windscreen. When a bullet comes that close you don’t hear it, you just feel the breath on the back of your neck.”
Stourton finds his day job unendingly stimulating, relishing the immediacy of breaking news when, as on the morning after the Hutton Report was published, he might be called upon to interview the resigning BBC director Greg Dyke at a moment’s notice.
“Very often the best interviews happen when you haven’t time to think of clever questions. You just ask the obvious ones, which are the right ones.
“The greatest interview skill is listening – you pick up on something unexpected that wasn’t in the brief and jump on it.”
n Ed Stourton is at the Proms at St Jude’s Lit Fest on June 23 at Henrietta Barnett School. Bookings at www.promsatstjudes.org.uk.